An abandoned tanker off Yemen with a load of 1.1 million barrels of crude oil could break at any time, posing the risk of unprecedented pollution in the Red Sea. 

The FSO Safer, 45, has been anchored since 2015 off the port of Hodeida controlled by Houthi rebels who prevent UN experts from inspecting the ship. 

The tanker has hardly been serviced since war broke out over five years ago between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the government supported by a Saudi-led coalition. 

The Security Council is holding a special meeting on July 15 on the issue, after a waterway was reported in the engine room of the ship, "which could have led to disaster", according to Stéphane Dujarric, carries - word of the head of the UN. 

If experts have access to the ship, they will carry out light repairs and determine the next steps, the spokesman added on Friday. "We hope that the logistical arrangements will be made quickly so that this work can begin," he said. 

The Safer could cause "the greatest environmental disaster regionally and globally," warned the Yemeni government. 

A top rebel leader, Mohamed Ali al-Houthi, asked in June on Twitter for a guarantee that the ship will be repaired and that the value of the oil on board will be used to pay the salaries of Houthi workers. 

The shipment is valued at $ 40 million, half of what it was before the price of crude oil fell, let alone according to experts who speak of a poor quality cargo. 

Prime Minister of Yemen Maïn Abdelmalek Saïd on Thursday called on the international community to punish the Houthis for preventing a UN inspection, and said that the value of the oil should be spent on health and humanitarian projects. 

A time bomb 

In addition to corrosion, gases may explode in the tanks and a leak in a cooling pipe was detected in May. 

"The hose burst, sending water into the engine room and creating a truly dangerous situation," said Ian Ralby, CEO of IR Consilium, a marine consultancy that is monitoring the situation closely. 

A team from Safer Exploration and Production Operations, an oil company partially controlled by the Houthis, sent divers to repair the leak, barely avoiding the sinking of the ship, he said. 

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned that if the tanker breaks, "it will devastate the Red Sea ecosystem" and disrupt major shipping routes. "The Houthis must grant access before this time bomb explodes," he said. 

If the ship breaks, "you're going to have two disasters," warned Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen. "There will be an unrivaled environmental disaster (...) and it will be a humanitarian disaster because the oil will make the port of Hodeida unusable," she told AFP. 

Yemeni environmental group Holm Akhdar, "Green Dream" in Arabic, warned that an oil spill could spill over the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. 

He added that the region would take 30 years to recover and some 115 of the Red Sea islands would lose their natural habitats. 

In a country where the majority of the population already depends on aid, it is estimated that 126,000 fishermen, including 68,000 in Hodeida, would lose their source of income. 

"In the midst of a global pandemic and on the edge of a conflict zone, the chances of a rapid and adequate response (to pollution) are extremely low," writes IR Consilium in a report. 

Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory, said, "The risks are clear: the longer the conflict, the larger it becomes, and the more complex and costly any rescue operation will be. ". 

With AFP

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